Matteo Garrone’s first English-language film is a baroque fantasy based on Pentamerone (Tale of Tales), the 17th-century collection of fairy tales by the Italian poet and courtier Giambattista Basile. (It is also known as The Story of Stories, ‘Lo cunto de li cunti’, but that, I think we can all agree, travels rather less well in the original language.)
Garrone, who is best known for his grittily realistic Neapolitan crime drama Gomorrah, has thrown gritty realism entirely to the winds here. Instead, this is fantastically unhinged, veering madly between wonder and horror, gorgeousness and grotesquery, as hearts are eaten, fleas are cuddled, and an old woman’s youth and beauty are restored once she’s been suckled by a witch. (Take that, Clarins!) It’s totally of itself and out there, which is estimable, but if you generally struggle with fantasy as I do — if anything can happen by magic, why does it matter? — you may ultimately struggle with this. ‘Don’t try to understand, just feel,’ Garrone has said but if you can’t help but try to understand, because it’s your nature, that is going to interfere. (I would add that I make no apologies for this, but it wouldn’t be true; I wish it were different and keep hoping that it will be different, but it never is.)
This is based on three of the 50 stories contained in Pentamerone, otherwise known as ‘Lo cunto de li cunti’, which I will probably never tire of wheeling out, obviously. The stories are ‘The Enchanted Doe’, ‘The Flea’ and ‘The Flayed Old Woman’, which Garrone has loosely interconnected by setting them in neighbouring kingdoms. The first tale concerns a haughty queen (Salma Hayek), who is desperate for a baby and is told by a necromancer that, to become pregnant, she must eat the heart of a sea monster as cooked by a virgin.